Use nodes and models to guide your academic writing

When I started my MEd in Holocaust education by full dissertation, I was given a great piece of advice. Start with the correct software from the outset. I was advised to familiarize myself with and use EndNote, which I found on my university's software repository, along with a whole bunch of other programmes that I knew nothing about, including NVivo.

Using EndNote proved invaluable and with my background in computers, I knew from the outset that academic software was the way to go but didn’t really know what else I needed.

The low tech approach

Once I'd completed my data collection (post-visit feedback forms by teachers who had visited the local Holocaust centre and interviews with six museum educators), I was ready to begin my data analysis. I was told that I should start by highlighting emerging themes with different coloured koki pens, sorting them with cut-up pieces of paper, and storing the information on rolodex-type cards for quotes and so on. This felt ridiculously antiquated in the digital age but clearly no-one in my department was using much computer software!

Running out of colors

So I began merrily highlighting the printed post-visit evaluation form data that I'd placed into an Excel spreadsheet. Yellow for teachers, blue for learners, green for emotive issues and so on. The themes piled up quick and fast. But as they expanded I started to run out of colours! My next strategy was to combine colours, ending up with ghastly shades of brown, sickly purple and a greenish sludge. Clearly I had to find a more efficient and 21st Century way to analyse my data!

Searching for academic software on Google led me to a few computer aided qualitative data analysis software packages. Then a bell rang. I'd seen NVivo on the university website; so without further delay, I downloaded NVivo onto my computer, despite deep scepticism emanating from my supervisor!

Once I began exploring the interface, I was hooked. It was a revelation and I guessed that anyone who had spent so much time developing such complex software could surely assist me, a novice researcher.

Plotting my way forward and learning as I go

I began coding tentatively, initially using trial and error, reading the balloons on the software itself to learn about the various functions, accessing the Help system and most importantly, watching YouTube videos to guide me. These were fantastic.

I was soon creating free nodes, dragging and dropping bits of data into the containers, and moving them around like a pro as my themes evolved.




Not only was I able to store relevant bits of information from my documents, I was also able to develop a hierarchical tree structure, which logically laid out my thoughts and resonated with my mode of thinking.

Over the next couple of months, I constantly categorised and re-categorised my themes, building a comprehensive, coherent structure. The outline of my data analysis chapters was unfolding before my eyes.

Mapping my writing journey with a model

I eventually created three super categories: Guides, Holocaust education and Museums. Each time I needed advice, I turned to the support videos, teaching myself on the fly how to create models, use the various functions such as autocoding, memos and annotations and set up queries. And in order to plot my writing journey, I created a model into which I pulled the now well-populated nodes.

Using these tools, writing up the data analysis chapters was in many respects one of the easier parts of writing my dissertation.

With the hierarchical node structure and my model to guide me, the paragraphs unfolded in a logical sequence and provided me with easy access to relevant quotes.

In fact, it was so successful that I wrote sixty pages of findings, which eventually had to be reduced to forty.

From learning to teaching

This year, having embarked on a PhD, and with NVivo already set-up in preparation for the literature review, my previously sceptical supervisor asked me to teach my fellow PhD and masters' students how to use NVivo in a day-long course, insisting that all his students at least try it out.

Who would have guessed that my NVivo journey would entail not only using the software but also teaching it?

And this is something I hope to continue doing in the future. With my passion for technology and academic software, and NVivo in particular, teaching others how to use it would be a dream come true.

So what tools are in your qualitative researcher’s toolbox? And where has your NVivo journey led you?

You can follow Brenda on Twitter @brenda_gouws or on her blog at

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